In honor of the release of Orion’s anthology Spark Birds, this magazine’s staff gathered in late July over Zoom to talk about the birds that glide and stride through our mind’s eye. Our spark birds fly through treetops and flit across screens; they adorn cereal boxes and grasses in prairie fields. In multiple instances, they even radicalized us.
Photo: Caerauthor Photos, Unsplash
The first time I heard this bird, it was on a walk with my partner and dog. I will reveal my ignorance by saying that we thought it was a robot-bird decoy someone put in the woods for, like, I don’t know, hunting? It made a strange, lilting metallic call somewhere in the family tree of far-off car alarms. Think Hunger Games. Think birdsarentreal. But an eventual Google search (‘bird that sounds like AI in the northeast’) led me to a better truth: the cinnamon-colored, ground-loving veery. Cousin to other thrushes like the bluebird and the robin, this little nondescript bird’s song has captured my imagination—and I’m just the latest in a long line of admirers. In 1874, observer Robert Ridgeway said that the veery’s call was “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
—Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, digital strategist
Photo: NES, Nintendo
The duck from Duck Hunt
At first I wanted badly to write about Woodstock, Snoopy’s easygoing canary pal, but what does one say about this untroubled creature to whose demeanor we all should aspire? I spent many hours following his charming exploits in the yard, but never was moved to action in the manner that I was by the duck from Duck Hunt, the 1984 NES title perhaps more responsible for my political ideology than anything Gandhi or Mandela ever wrote.
Here is how the game works: you hold a gun, and ducks appear on screen, and you shoot them in the face. Their appearance—sometimes from the sky and sometimes from the depths of a bush—is meant to trigger the instinct to kill. All they want is safe passage to the edge of the screen, where they can disappear into a void absent any human influence, and we shoot them for this, again and again, believing that they do not deserve the luxury of flying away. We want them for ourselves, I suppose, or maybe for our weird beagle, who loves nothing more than to wrestle duck corpses from the bramble and wrap his fist around their pixelated necks. In the game you have three chances to shoot, or you’ll lose and be teased by your own dog for your inability to kill, and probably your friends or your brother’s friends too. The reward for hitting your mark is the opportunity to kill again.
I did not care for Duck Hunt, did not enjoy the winning or even the charade involved in the many times I lost on purpose, shooting an empty sky and pretending like I was mad for having missed once more. I got in trouble for unplugging the light gun and putting it in the garbage, once, and I did not enjoy that at all. Nowadays I do not enjoy eating duck, or eating french fries fried in duck fat, or reading about duck l’orange or canard à la presse, or the idea that a device can be had which puts a hole through the flesh of another living creature. The world of all that stuff feels not worth saving. So in that sense I’d say that if I do have a spark bird, it’s the one I killed.
—Sumanth Prabhaker, editor in chief
Photo: J. H. Williams, Canva
I grew up in windswept Billings, Montana where the Rockies meet the swirling fringe of the Great Plains. My childhood smelled of a nearby sugar beet factory, acrid Exxon refinery, and damp prairie earth. And it sounded like a meadowlark. I remember listening to the lilting melody—perpetually searching for (and rarely spotting) the yellow feathers of its composer. I was (and still am amazed) that such a tiny frame creates such an expansive song, that it fills the whole, unbroken Montana sky. Like many kids growing up in rural America, I didn’t realize I was homesick for the meadowlark until I moved to a big city. Now I’m always trying to find my way back to its music.
—Natalie Middleton, science editor
Kyorochan the . . . Toucan?
My grandmother would prepare extra plain white rice when I would visit her in Japan because I was a stubborn kid with a big appetite and a seemingly endless endurance for monotony. Despite being generously offered home-prepared delicacies of all kinds, I would eat plain white rice with seaweed and miso soup for nearly every meal. It took some time until I would explore the sensation of tentacles on my tongue or the crunch of a fried fish fin but it seems like I never had a problem trying a new thing if it was covered with chocolate, and this is what led me to Kyorochan.
I remember him with round friendly eyes, a big yellow beak and a body that looked like it could have been an almond. I discovered him on the box of ChocoBalls. I don’t have memories of ChocoBalls being particularly tasty. I didn’t dislike them, but I definitely preferred almond crush Pocky. Even with my strong preference for Pocky, I think most times when I found myself lucky enough to get to pick out a treat at a convenience store that had both the almond crush Pocky and the ChocoBalls, I would choose the ChocoBalls because it meant I also gained the companionship of Kyorochan. I would deliberately eat the treats inside his box slowly so I would have an excuse to keep carrying him around with me for a bit longer.
I’m not sure exactly why I was so captivated by him and I don’t even really know what kind of bird he was supposed to be but because he had a big beak he was always a toucan to me. I became obsessed with toucans. I eventually got a stuffed toy Kyorochan, and later as a middle school kid once used all the money I had saved to buy a toucan I found at a craft fair fashioned out of three pieces of wood. A body with two wings attached to it with fishing line loose enough so that the wings could move. There was also a little string that hung down from the belly with a banana at the end that you could pull and he would fly. I wouldn’t say I was always dreaming of toucans, but I did sleep with that three-piece brilliantly beaked bird gliding through the air above my bed every day until I left home.
—Ricky Green, database manager
Photo: Brian E. Kushner, Canva
When I was a child, I used to sit in my kitchen, staring out the window at our birdfeeder. I always had my bird identification book in hand, but I never really used it. I could tell you the names of a lot of birds, but I didn’t really know anything about them. And I certainly couldn’t point out which bird was which in the wild. They were all kind of the same to me. It wasn’t until a trip to Granny’s house that I started to really understand birds. Granny was an older lady who was completely unrelated to us and who loved birds fiercely. At her house, I noticed that some of her birdfeeders looked different than the one my family had, and they were filled with something different. Granny told me that they were finch feeders full of tiny thistle seeds. As we sat on her porch, watching the feeders, a goldfinch landed on one. Its beak was different from other birds’ beaks, perfectly suited to the finch feeder. It was the first time I began to understand that all birds are different. And I wanted to learn as much about those differences I could. When we got back from Granny’s house, I read the book ID book cover to cover.
—Kim Schmidt, editorial intern
Photo: JT Stewart, Canva
When my son was a toddler, he became enthralled with the penguins at the New England Aquarium. He loved to watch them zoom around their water enclosure or waddle about on the deck. My wife and I had a hard time pulling him away. Since he had two moms, we wanted him surrounded with books that reflected and celebrated families like his. One of our favorites to read with him was And Tango Makes Three, a story about two male penguins in a zoo who hatch an egg (with the assistance of an observant zoo keeper). Years later, while visiting London with our now teenage son, we decided to spend a morning at the zoo. Of course, we had to see the penguins and were delighted to find a banner stretched across the penguin exhibit that proclaimed SOME PENGUINS ARE GAY. GET OVER IT. We spent a good amount of time with the penguins that day.
—Tracie Butler-Kurth, philanthropic strategist
Photo: Nijwam Swargiary, Unsplash
Frightful the falcon from My Side of the Mountain
For as long as I can remember, I have been more or less obsessed with animals. And I don’t mean just learning about them in books and on screens, or watching them do their thing in the wild, or populating my childhood bed and walls with plush and poster versions of them, I mean really truly longing to commune with them. In that sense, all birds are my spark birds—the loon yodeling across the lake in northern Wisconsin, the chickadee at the feeder, the raven yanking at gory roadside carnage. But, as a girl who also loved reading and writing and getting lost in a story, you could make the case that my spark bird was a certain falcon called Frightful.
My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George’s 1959 Newbury honor book about a twelve-year-old boy who flees his urban life to test his mettle in the woods, was my jam. (See also: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, etc.) Sam prepares for his adventure by pouring over wilderness survival books at the local library. (I too kept these books on my shelf.) Eventually, he manages to more or less feed, cloth, shelter, and entertain himself for months alone in the woods. Except he wasn’t alone, not really, because there was Baron the Weasel nearby, and raccoons and songbirds to watch, and of course, there was Frightful. Yes, he plucked her from her nest as a chick, and yes, trained her to hunt for him (both of these facts made me uneasy), and yes, he ultimately learned balance between self-sufficient solitude and caring community was key. . . but oh, oh, to live in a tree in the woods and lazily ruffle a falcon friend’s feathers. . . I do believe that young desire has shaped my entire life.
—Kathleen Yale, digital editor
My hometown once claimed to be the logging capital of the world. It was a town built on one industry: clearing the great temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. When I was growing up, timber was still tightly interwoven into the community fabric, from our county fair mascot (Dougie the lumberjack) to the sepia-toned timber camp photos on the courthouse walls to the massive log trucks that daily rolled down main street. So it was a surprise to me when, in eighth grade, a biologist came to our classroom to talk about the spotted owl. This was the late 1980s, and timber was beginning to seriously unravel for many reasons—mechanization, global markets, environmental laws. People were unemployed, angry, and confused. An easy scapegoat was this secretive bird. The biologist explained that the spotted owl only lived in Pacific coast old growth forests from Northern California to British Columbia. Because of decades of rampant logging and forest fragmentation, the bird faced extinction. To me, a kid who bonded with animals easier than people, this was a no-brainer. The spotted owl was losing its home. That shouldn’t happen.
This view, which grew stronger in me by the year, was, of course, very unpopular. It was unpopular with my 4-H leader, whose husband managed a mill, and with my Sunday school teacher, who told me after the rapture we would leave this planet behind—there was no need to care for it now. It was unpopular with my classmates, the majority of whom had family members who worked in the forests and mills and drove big semis stacked with logs to those mills. It was unpopular with community leaders, who during timber parades burned prominent environmentalists in effigy. I came to embrace this opinion with more and more surety, a teenager’s desire to form identity, something different and defining. But, through the spotted owl, I also learned how important wild places were to me. I became a founding member of my high school’s first environmental club. I would go on to study policy and science as well essays and poetry with nature at the heart. The arc of my career, the hours where I spend my free time, the places I still turn to for refuge—all were sparked by the spotted owl. It is a bird I have yet to see in person but which haunts my childhood forests and wings through my imagination to this day, decades after that biologist held up a picture in the classroom.
—Tara Rae Miner, editorial production manager
Photo: Christina Prinn, Canva
Sometimes I hear them before I see them, but even then it’s only briefly: a buzz almost akin to a large bee and, if I’m lucky, a quick sensation of wind along the side of my head. My eyes often feel too slow to follow the tiny body to the feeder, where finally it pauses just long enough for me to see the iridescent greens and reds of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Tucked away in the woods in rural Ohio, my house now has seven bird feeders, three of which are filled with red sugar water. Of all the feathered visitors on my deck, I’ve always felt the most connection to the hummingbirds. On occasion, if I’m lounging on the hammock when their feeders are empty, they hover in the air above my face, chattering as if requesting their usual meal. Or other times, when the feeder is freshly filled and placed on its hook, the hummingbirds will fly in circles or pause at the window of our front door as if to tell us thank you. I’ve tried countless times to watch these birds as they leave the feeder and fly up to their homes in the trees, but with wings that flap sixty times each second, my eyes don’t stand a chance. This only adds to my appreciation for their time spent at the feeders. They encourage moments of stillness, of taking in the beauty of these small creatures, knowing that in an instant they could disappear into a blur.
—Faith Griffiths, editorial intern
Photo: Lorisha Buhler Ferrara, Unsplash
The peacocks in my neighborhood have been here longer than the rest of us. No one knows where they came from; they’ve always just been here, in our little suburb, hopping from roof to roof, mailbox to mailbox. We’ve learned to wait patiently as they amble across the street or down our driveways, and we’ve learned—or at least a few of us have—how to sleep through their ritualized screaming. I don’t think my neighborhood would be the same without these peacocks; it would be too quiet, too ordinary (as are most suburbs). My neighbor even swears that ever since she saw a peacock land on her mailbox, she’s been getting “good news after good news.” Seeing peacocks around here should by now be the most unextraordinary thing—but somehow, in my mind, they’re just as magical, just as unbelievable, as they were when I was little, on the way home from the zoo, imagining how I would steal a peacock and bring it home with me. I imagined that I would lure it into my mom’s car with a trail of hamster food. Or that I’d become such good friends with it that it would follow me right out of the zoo, no bribery involved.
—Sophia Kang, editorial intern
Photo: OldFulica, Canva
I fell in love with birds in the concrete jungle of New York City, when during a jog through the neighborhood I spotted a type of bird I’d never noticed before. About the size of a robin, this gray bird with white spots on its wings landed on a chainlink fence. I stopped to catch my breath and watched as it opened its beak and let out a croak that sounded like a frog. When I got back home I researched birds in the area that sounded like frogs and decided that what I’d seen was a northern mockingbird mimicking the frogs in Central Park. How strongly I related to this tiny being pretending to be someone else, even if just for a moment.
—Amy Brady, executive director